Imvubu Newsletter

The Killing of Huberta and its legacy

© Victor, S. Imvubu 20: 1, 4 – 5.

Huberta, the famous wandering hippopotamus, is arguably the Amathole Museum’s most famous exhibit. Research into her epic journey has resulted in five books, several journal and newspaper articles as well as countless enquiries from the public over the last 77 years. The men and their descendants who were responsible for Huberta’s death have, however, not come forward with their side of the story.

The carcass of Huberta on the banks of the Buffalo River with a man who has been identified as Nicholaas Marx senior, Ms Engelbrecht's grandfather.That is, until Jean Engelbrecht, nee Marx, visited the museum in July 2006. It was the actions of her grandfather, Nicholaas Marx, and his two sons, Petrus and Nicholaas jnr. and her great uncle, J.C. Hattingh, that led to the shooting of Huberta on the farm, Good Hope, in the Keiskamma River near Peddie in April 1931. Subsequent conversations with Ms Engelbrecht, who is now documenting her family history and is hoping to publish her findings, have resulted in the following account.

Huberta shot to fame after a 1 600 km journey down the Kwazulu-Natal coast to the Eastern Cape. From 1928, when she first came to the attention of the public, the wandering hippo was frequently headline news. She became known as South Africa’s ‘national pet’ and many supporters eagerly followed her journey across the country. On 23 April 1931, however, her carcass was found floating in the Keiskamma River, 30km from King Williams Town. Great public outrage followed the discovery that a hail of bullets had killed Huberta. Her death was described as a ‘deliberate affair, a ghastly business in the eyes of all lovers of animals and those that stand for the preservation of the outstanding fauna of this country.’

Despite a police investigation into the matter, the perpetrators were not identified until the Marx family and J.C. Hattingh confessed to the killing in May 1931, almost a month after the event occurred. According to Marx senior, his son, Petrus, alerted him to the spoor of an unknown animal in their field that was tracked to the river where the animal was shot and wounded. On the following morning, they returned to the spot and noticed that she was still in the river, but was now on Good Hope, the farm of their neighbour and relative, J.C. Hattingh. The latter was alerted that an animal ‘larger than a beast’ was in the river and he proceeded to the spot. Hattingh stated that he saw a strange head appear above the water. The hippo was evidently badly wounded, so he killed her in order to put her out of her misery.

It was only after the terrible deed was concluded that the perpetrators were informed about Huberta and her epic journey for the first time. It was rumoured that a reward of £200 had been offered for information that would lead to the arrest of the perpetrators and they became afraid. They were illiterate, lived in total isolation and probably felt that they had to protect their crops. Huberta’s slayers were each fined £25 for unlawfully hunting royal game.

But Huberta’s influence on Engelbrecht’s family does not end there. Her death had a profound effect on the Marx and Hattingh families and their descendants. According to Engelbrecht they were plagued by tragedy. Apart from causing animosity between the Marx and Hattingh families, they were ‘decimated and the family name wiped out in a series of gruesome freak accidents.’ Some believe the accidents were the result of a curse that was placed on the killers and their family line. Engelbrecht states that: ‘The accidents left three sets of parents grieving for their children after one boy, eight years old, jumped from a moving train that was supposed to stop; another, playing on the stoep at 18 months, while being held fell backwards and broke his back, and a third, aged 22, was the only one to die in a car accident involving four others.’ Engelbrecht’s own father, the younger brother of Petrus and Nicholaas, was killed in a gruesome accident and was crushed between two trailers. In the process, the Marx family line was decimated.

In the years that followed, Huberta’s killers were often demonized, both in the eyes of the public and those of family members. Their trigger-happy pursuit of the famous wandering hippo was referred to as the ‘Huberta syndrome’ and Engelbrecht states that she believed her ancestors ‘were monsters’. It is still believed that the men ‘got off lightly with a small fine,’ but in truth the fines led to financial ruin, the Marx family lost their farm and was forced to become bywoners (agricultural labourers). In 1978 Hattingh’s farm, Good Hope, was expropriated in order to be incorporated into a Ciskei parastatal, Ulimocor, but this did not materialise. The farms were abandoned; only the ruins of the houses remain. According to Engelbrecht: ‘The land was lost, the farms were derelict, nothing prospered again’. Matters were made worse by the fact that the family’s misfortunes were never discussed or explained within the family inner circle.

Profoundly influenced by the above, Engelbrecht, a devout Christian, decided to take the opposite direction. She began researching and documenting the events of April 1931 and its consequences on her family. She believes that her journey has given her absolution. She describes Huberta’s death as ‘a heinous thing’ ‘But at least now I understand how it happened. They have become people for me – far from perfect, but no longer a dark dirty secret from my past.’ In the process, Engelbrecht has been reunited with members of the Hattingh family and have visited the family’s erstwhile farms adjacent to the Keiskamma River. In return, we have now been presented with another dimension to Huberta’s story which hopefully will give some clarity to her epic journey and its consequences for all involved.

Sources: Daily Representative, 24.04.1931 ‘Splendid Sportmanship!’, Cape Mercury, 28.04.1931; Daily Dispatch 04.07.2006 ‘Tragedy plagued family of men who killed Huberta & Daily Dispatch 28.07.2006 ‘On the Trail of Huberta the Hippo,’ Animal Stories for Children: hippo

Label: The carcass of Huberta on the banks of the Buffalo River with a man who has been identified as Nicholaas Marx senior, Ms Engelbrecht’s grandfather